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Colorado's public lands are faced with new challenges but water and land management depend on working together. Read about the relationship between water and land in Colorado and how Coloradans are converging to restore Colorado's public lands in the Spring 2018 issue of Headwaters magazine.

Browse articles and find a flipbook of the magazine here.

Connecting the Drops

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Water Education Colorado

Arkansas Basin Roundtable

The Arkansas River flows from 14,000-foot peaks near Leadville to the plains along the Kansas border before leaving the state to continue its lengthy trip to the Mississippi. Its watershed is the largest in Colorado, covering more than one fourth of the state.

The vast basin also has a broad roundtable membership of 53, which makes it a little unwieldy says its chair, Gary Barber. Unwieldy though it may be, the Arkansas is setting the pace for the other roundtables. At the December 2008 meeting of the Interbasin Compact Committee, the Arkansas was referenced as a model for how roundtables can move forward.

‘The General Assembly told us to propose projects and methods,’ Barber likes to say. ‘And we're going to turn in our homework.’

The roundtable has taken its own version of the IBCC's draft vision statement and begun to delineate strategies for meeting the basin's future demands. ‘We've had everybody and his brother in to show us projects,’ says IBCC representative Jay Winner. ‘Our plan from there is to identify what are good projects for the Arkansas Basin.’

The basin finished its consumptive needs assessment after updating the numbers from its Statewide Water Supply Initiative report. It realized an additional 10,000 acre feet in future demand, bringing its gap between supply and demand to 31,700 acre feet. Two thirds of that is in El Paso County.

‘The biggest thing that changed was that SWSI had an assumption that groundwater would keep pumping,’ explains Barber, who is the El Paso County Water Authority manager. ‘When we started pushing out to 2035 or 2050 that is not a reasonable assumption.’

The expansion of Fort Carson, south of Colorado Springs, is another change. The army is doubling its troop strength, which will bring up to 40,000 new residents including troops' families.

With about 400,000 acres of irrigated farmland extending east from Pueblo to the Kansas border, the Arkansas Valley's agricultural water is a convenient source for meeting increasing municipal demands. Conveyance is less an issue than in some regions. Though roundtable members anticipate traditional agricultural water transfers to account for some portion of new urban water, they are pursuing alternatives to help farmers stay on the farm.

One option is for ditch companies and their shareholders to pool water and arrange temporary lease agreements while fallowing some of their land. The Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District, of which Winner is general manager, has spent $750,000 to create the Super Ditch Company, a limited liability corporation that employs this concept. The roundtable also sponsored a Water Supply Reserve Account grant to help Super Ditch assess the leasing market, storage facilities and other technicalities. The Super Ditch has yet to jump many hurdles, and some municipalities hesitate to rely on water they don't own outright.

Alan Hamel, executive director of the Pueblo Board of Water Works and former roundtable chair, says Pueblo is working with ag interests in its acquisition of ag water, but with a twist. ‘We wanted a little more control than we saw at this point in the Super Ditch. In the interim we'll do long-term leasebacks to work together with ag. We can help them develop a more dependable supply and give them the capital up front that they can reinvest in their farm,’ says Hamel. But in a dry year, the city would get the water while the fields go unplanted.

Protecting the agricultural community is important to the basin, which has suffered dramatic losses due to agricultural dry-up in the past. Following the collapse of the sugar beet industry, much of Crowley County's water ended up on the market. Aurora anted up and became the sole importer of Arkansas Basin water. Meanwhile, Crowley's property values plummeted.

In order to further protect rural communities, the roundtable completed a water transfers guidelines report. Through sometimes contentious dialogue, the transfers subcommittee developed a model for accommodating transfers while minimizing the damage to rural economies and third parties. ‘The report doesn't advocate transfers,’ says the subcommittee's chair, Lawrence Sena, who is mayor of Las Animas. ‘It just set up guidelines to follow in the event they are going to happen.’

Of course, farmers have many reasons for selling water and leaving the farm including profitability, labor, competition, and general productivity such as growing crops in Colorado versus Idaho or Iowa, says Wayne Vanderschuere, Colorado Springs Utilities' representative to the roundtable and one of the governor's appointees to the IBCC.

‘It very quickly transitions to discussions of rural economic viability that have nothing to do with water,’ he says. ‘The myth is that urban communities are riding in with guns-a-blazing to take water from ag. Instead, they are coming to us and asking, do you want to buy my water? Hardly a week goes by without getting those calls.’

Barber hopes to lead the roundtable toward a discussion of sustainability as it relates to water and the economy, environment and social values. ‘We have a nostalgic love for our western heritage. Even though a lot of our water is in ag, we love those farmers and the open space associated with the land. There is a lot more value to us as a society than just the food it produces. At the same time, the economy of Chaffee County, for example, is about rafting, not ranching. We don't want the ranchers to go away; we just want to see them in the background as we go by in the raft.’

Indeed, recreation is the biggest economic driver in Chaffee County, home of Buena Vista and Salida. The Arkansas is the most rafted river in the world, with popular sections like The Numbers, Brown's Canyon and the Royal Gorge. A voluntary flow agreement between the Bureau of Reclamation, Colorado State Parks and various water providers ensures the river is boatable all summer.

‘The Arkansas is a highly manipulated river,’ says Reed Dils, who retired from the rafting business and serves as the Colorado Water Conservation Board member from the Arkansas Basin. ‘Spring runoff maintains adequate flows through June, but from July 1 through Aug. 15, releases are timed to maintain high enough flows for rafting while not releasing too much for fisheries.’

Most of the water for the flow agreement, hailed as an example of collaborative success, comes from the Frying Pan-Arkansas project, which diverts water from the Colorado River Basin to the Arkansas.

Dils was involved in the basin's non-consumptive needs assessment, along with long-time conservationist SeEtta Moss. Moss explains that in order to map its priority reaches and watersheds, the basin developed a model using HUCs, or Hydrologic Unit Codes, to identify attributes such as wetlands and important areas for endangered species, rafting or fishing. They layered the mapped attributes over one another to determine the areas with the highest concentration of values. The next step will be quantifying the flows needed to protect those values.

The roundtable may have an advantage. One of the Arkansas' major tributaries, Fountain Creek, was chosen as a pilot for an experimental quantification tool developed by researchers at Colorado State University. The tool's watershed approach examines water needs on a gross level to determine if areas are healthy or not, says Moss, the roundtable's vice-chair and environmental representative. ‘From there, you have a notion of where to invest your money for site-specific quantification, which is very costly and time-consuming,’ says Moss.

As the roundtable continues identifying solutions to address its water supply needs, several other factors will be considered. One is the compact with Kansas, which has been a drain on the valley since 1985 when Kansas filed a lawsuit claiming it wasn't getting its share of compact-allocated water. Another issue will be water quality.

‘East of Pueblo Reservoir, a lot of factors contribute to the deterioration of water quality: storm runoff, agriculture and return flows, and the geology--the shales in the sand that water passes through,’ says Hamel. ‘Water quality will be an important part of the discussions as we start proposing projects and methodologies.’

The roundtable will focus on meeting future needs from its own basin. Some of its motivation stems from the basin's unique dual role as an importing and exporting basin. ‘Because we understand how transbasin diversions can impact the county of origin, we have empathy as we work with those on the Colorado River,’ explains Hamel.

‘We know what it feels like to be an exporting basin.’

At the same time, the Arkansas has benefited mightily from imported water, says Vanderscheure. Based on current ownership, Pueblo at buildout will rely on 60 percent transbasin water and Colorado Springs, 85 percent. With that degree of dependence on Colorado River water, the basin is vested in the outcome of the Colorado River Water Availability Study and the avoidance of over-appropriation or curtailment under the Colorado River Compact.

‘It's important to us to be in that dialogue,’ says Barber.



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